Majority think access is crucial

The Columbus Dispatch – March 13, 2005

Open records are critical to sustaining a democracy, says Tony Logan, a Columbus lawyer.

”I think that transparency of government actions is only achieved if you have a well-enforced public-records law,” said Logan, 53.

”For a typical citizen to have any ability to acquire the information necessary to either challenge his governmental leaders or, in certain circumstances, support them, there is an absolute need for free and open access to those records.”

Logan’s enthusiasm for public access to government records is typical of respondents in a poll of Columbus-area residents. About 75 percent said Ohioans have either too little or about the right amount of access to government records. Eight percent said they have too much.

Kelley Betsko, 32, is among those who say Ohioans can’t obtain enough records from their government. As the owner of a title agency, she uses public records almost daily. But sometimes people have trouble finding out information even about themselves, she has found.

”It’s ‘we the people,’ and I don’t really know where we got away from that, but we have,” the Gahanna resident said.

Barbara Greenlee, 64, a retired school bus driver from Pickerington, called access to government records vital because it allows the public to examine spending and determine how to vote on tax levies.

”I like to know what is going on, like what our taxes are being spent on,” she said. ”We pay outrageous taxes, and they are always back for more every Election Day.”

The telephone poll of 400 randomly selected people with Columbus-area phone exchanges was conducted March 4 through Tuesday by Saperstein Associates for The Dispatch. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Much of the survey was patterned after one published in September 2002 by American Journalism Review. The results from this poll parallel those in the magazine’s, said Martin D. Saperstein, president of Saperstein Associates.

In both cases, respondents overwhelmingly wanted ready access to government records. They also were more interested in records related to safety issues than in information about the pay and performance of public officials, Saperstein said.

For example, almost nine in 10 central Ohioans strongly agree that they want access to the names of sexual offenders; nearly eight in 10 want a look at restaurant health inspections; and seven in 10 want to see local crime reports.

But only a little more than four in 10 strongly agree that the public should have access to records showing local government officials’ expense accounts or the police chief’s salary and benefits.

And two-thirds say other Ohioans have too much access to personal information about them.

”Human nature would suggest people want information about others but are reluctant for others to have information about them,” Saperstein said.

When they say they want access to government records, ”People don’t think that might mean information about me,” he said. For instance, people might say they want information about drunken-driving arrests to be public — unless it involves themselves or a member of their family, Saperstein said.

Bill Hunsaker, 56, a Columbus State chemistry professor, generally supports access to public records. But the North Side resident said much of the material in his personnel file ”is nobody’s business.”

Like many of those polled, Paul Sapp, 50, a pharmaceutical representative, has no qualms about demanding full disclosure of governmental records. But the Upper Arlington resident worries about the explosion of personal information online.

The line between which information is personal — and thus private — and which should be a matter of public record can be better monitored, Sapp said.

”With the advent of the Internet, the government or other people obtaining your personal information has grown exponentially,” he said. ”At what point does Big Brother say, ‘We’re a police state and nobody can have anything’?”

Steve Walters, 51, also expressed concern about the proliferation of information online — both public and private, such as data held by credit-rating companies — and the possibility of identity theft.

”We’re very vulnerable,” said the investment broker from the Northwest Side.

”We need to be better protected. But the Internet is moving faster than our society. The laws are five years behind the world we’re living in.”

Still, he deems public records a ”basic right” that allows the public to keep tabs on government. Access to records ”helps keep government above board and a little less corrupt. It helps keep honest people honest.”

Teresa Royster, a 73-year-old retired caretaker of mentally retarded children, was among those who believe Ohioans do not have enough access to public records.

”Government is too secretive,” the West Side resident said. ”They don’t tell us anything. They’re our records. They should be upfront with everybody. After all, we do pay their wages.”